Anthropological Quarterly 77.2 (2004) 303-310
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How to Organize a Psychiatric Congress
I requested of the AAA a computer projection screen for this presentation, but I was told it would cost $200. When I expressed my surprise and disgruntlement over this I was admonished to be grateful, as the undiscounted fee is $600. This means you will have to hear a few thousand extra words of description—going by the standard exchange rate. However, my point in raising this is not principally to complain about the conference organization or the AAA, but to begin to portray my first picture of the contrast with a World Psychiatric Association (WPA) meeting I attended this past August in Yokohama. This is the subject and title of my talk—"how to organize a psychiatric congress."
In contrast with the AAAs, at the WPA there were sessions with wireless simultaneous interpretation into five different languages; presentations set to film and dramatic musical accompaniment—available later in free souvenir CDs; and superstar panels on which world famous academic psychiatrists give lectures while the audience is treated to gourmet meals and furnished with folders containing summaries of the lectures, copies of the Powerpoint slides, pads and pens. All of these competing symposia are advertised at every escalator landing in the convention center by smartly clad hosts or hostesses distributing [End Page 303] flyers. In the exhibit area the main attraction is not the book fair but booths hosting slot games with prizes, foot and body massages, interactive game shows, and a virtual reality demonstration enabling psychiatrists to experience schizophrenia for themselves. The best part is that for many attendees, the entire trip and the registration fee is paid for, courtesy not of home academic institutions or hospitals but, as you may have guessed by now, of sponsoring pharmaceutical companies.
The circumstances in which I came to attend the congress are relevant to my subject. I was in Japan last winter researching the introduction of SSRI or Prozac-type anti-depressants to the Japanese market. I met with psychiatrists and health officials, but also with pharmaceutical companies, in this case foreign firms because the Japanese have as yet no product entries in this area.1 One of my industry informants asked me if I had plans to attend the WPA Congress in August. I said I hadn't, to which he replied: "Oh you ought to go. It is going to be a huge trade show."
The accuracy of this description, spoken with candor because its author would never have suspected an ironic interpretation of it, is not here being remarked upon for the first time. Meeting organizers, psychiatrists and also some journalists have started to uneasily remark upon the sponsored nature of psychiatric congresses. Jeffrey Levine, for instance, chair of psychiatry at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, was quoted in the Washington Post last May as having said during a panel addressing the ethics of industry influence, that the American Psychiatric Association meeting might as well be renamed the American Psychiatric Association GlaxoSmithKline Convention. GlaxoSmithKline is the maker of Paxil, the best-selling antidepressant in the U.S. Levine went on to note, however, that the ethics session itself would not have been possible without industry funding.2 Despite a noticeable increase in industry involvement in psychiatric congresses in particular and in psychiatric practice in general, few psychiatrists I have spoken to or have seen quoted on this topic seem more than marginally concerned with this development, however. This is apparently the case because, as experts, psychiatrists estimate themselves capable of filtering out the messages of the drug companies and therefore of not being swayed by the advertising or the perks. As Jeffrey Bedrick of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York is quoted as saying in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "I'm convinced I can filter it out, but apparently [the drug companies] are convinced I can't."3
The initial fallacy of this conviction that, as one psychiatrist put it to me, "I'm probably a heck of a lot smarter than the marketers...